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January 25, 2011


Leslie Rush

This is an excellent question. I've been reading your blog for a while, but have never posted. As a former fundamentalist, evangelical missionary -- now an atheist -- I often think about whether my basic tendency toward morality/honesty/goodness/hard work came from my upbringing (thanks, mom) or from my years as a Christian. I actually think that it is a combination of both. Certainly other, perhaps more surface, traits have fallen away. I often wonder what kind of person I would be if I had never been so thoroughly indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity. I live out the values that I believe in, now, not because I believe in God, but because I believe in the importance of goodness as part of my way of being in the world. And partly because I feel guilty when I am not good.


If 'religion' is understood as one of what Alisdair MacIntyre called practices (Definition of a practice from After Virtue: "any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended"), then I would answer that my religion is central to my concept of myself but not in the sense of self-identification. Instead, it is central because the practice of Christianity shapes my understanding of who I am qua virtuous being and who I am relative to persons A, B, C, etc. For example, one standard of excellence I ought to be attempting to achieve as a participant in the practice of Christianity is that described by Christ in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Striving to achieve this standard of excellence will help me to define myself qua good neighborliness (I am a good, bad, or mediocre neighbor), and it will also help me define who I am relative to the various people in my life, e. g. Person A thinks of me as a good neighbor because I mowed his lawn while his wife was in the hospital, but B thinks of me as a mediocre neighbor because I didn't stop to help when his car was broken down on the side of the road.

I won't pretend that religious affiliation can't be central to someone's life in the self-identification sense, but I think this tends to be destructive as it leads to the sort of tribal, insider vs. outsider, attitudes typical of political party affiliation.


Alasdair, not Alisdair.

Treovr Palen

I want to ask some questions, not for the sake of argument, but I'd love to hear your expound on some concepts…I may have some straw-men in here, but I think you can figure out what I'm trying to ask:

Greg: "Turns out you are pretty much who and what you are no matter what you believe about sky gods."

-- Reducing "you are..who and what you are" to the term identity and taking "about the sky gods" out of the statement (because to believe, regardless of object, is an action void of knowability), we could rephrase your statement "turns out your identity is no matter what you believe". If that's not a fair assessment, let me know.

So given the statement is axiomatic, how is one's identity established? Is it pre-determined or self-determined (If you think it can be both, I'd love to hear you flesh that out a little).

Greg: "My sense of self is improved when I love other people, when I live graciously and redemptively in the world."

-- Are "graciously" and "redemptively" objectively defined terms? If not, and they are defined based on self-developed constructs of "good" and "evil", then what is really being said is "My sense of self is improved when I live like the person I envision as being good". That would seem to me to be circular and nothing more than mental masturbation. If the definition of the two words is arrived at somewhere between "objectively" and "self-developed" I'd again love to hear you flesh that out a bit.

Greg: "I lose my sense of self when…I fail to do what is obviously right out of sheer laziness."

-- What is the determining object of "right" (so determining that "right" can be obvious in certain circumstance)?

Trevor Palen

Good Lord...At least Cheek misspelled someone else's name...

Greg Horton

Trevor, you're not allowed to reduce that statement to "identity." The term itself is too vague. Do you mean my name? Documentation? Reputation? Marital status? Identity might address who I am, but it does not address what I am. Nor can you get rid of sky gods, and here's why. I have found that most people are good or bad (more on that later) based not on fear of hell or eternal punishment, nor on promise of heaven or eternal reward, but because we have learned how much chaos we can live with, and usually we've found it's best to live without much. Intentional douchebaggery causes chaos, so while we might do it for a while as young people, most of us settle into being generally good with short periods in Vegas or at Night Trips to "get it out of our system." Sky gods tend to function as justification for our believes over against other people, not to justify our best behavior. Our best behavior needs no justification. So, I'm pretty much who and what I am based on other factors, not belief in any particular deity. Most of us live without the benefit of believing sHe speaks to us in direct ways, so we believe the commandments are mediated through other means. We end up doing what we believe god demands, but not really "knowing" in any meaningful way if that is in fact the case.

As to the second question, I don't know what an objectively defined term is. I take good and evil to be constructs, but solid constructs, such that we can say molesting children is evil. Theists often operate under the misguided notion that they have objective standards of good and evil because they believe in a transcendent law/deity, but it takes very little prompting for them to realize that the deity they worship seems "above" this transcendent law, so in what sense is the standard objective? It's apparently arbitrary, since the deity is free to ignore it when he murders a planet full of women and children with a flood. So much for thou shalt not kill. Either murdering babies is objectively wrong or it isn't. Apparently, within a certain theistic framework, it's only situationally wrong. God can do it. Therefore, god is not trustworthy because, if he is free to murder, he is also free to lie.

Subjectivity then is where we all live. I'm fine with that, because even humanism can create a hierarchy of rights, beginning with the right to life. All other rights descend in some order from that primary one such that I can finally and unashamedly say that to live redemptively in the world means to live in such a way that I encourage, support, sustain and enrich life.

Trevor Palen


On the statement "you are…who and what you are": Is this a term or is it fair to break them apart and ask the questions "how is our 'who' established?" and "how is our 'what' established?" (though, I do think that question is a little more asinine). Does one inform the other, both inform each other, or neither inform the other?

I also don't want to be so dickish as to ask you to define "chaos", but if you're able to expound on that concept, particularly as it relates to humans globally and individually, in the explanation of "who and what you are", I'd be interested to know how we interact with this vague concept of "chaos".

What I mean when I say "objectively" defined is definition by way of relationship to an object. In your discourse over Theists notions of good and evil, you demonstrated the silliness of believing good/evil is defined by transcendent law (maybe even the commandments). So that would be an objectively defined, as the transcendent law, however unknowable (and the commandments, which are written down) is still an object which determines the definition of good/evil. So what I am asking is what is the basis/object of definition/foundation of construct for these constructs of good/evil, especially if they are so solid as to pronounce anything evil? I imagine the answer is, is close to, and/or is partly "social contract" being as the object/basis, but if that's not the case, then the question stands. Is the construct self-developed at all, if so, how much?


Greg Horton

I'd prefer at this point that you simply ask a straightforward question and leave the Socratic questioning to retired Greek philosophers. I'm not sure how I could have been clearer in the previous answer. What exactly is it you want to know about identity? Our who is established narratively, once every genetic and environmental contribution has been accounted for. We're story-formed, and I can't remember whose quote that is, but it has always made way more sense than soul talk. Our what is an open question. Some of us seem good at being good, others not so much.

Chaos is pretty straightforward, isn't it? Anything that works against shalom, relationship, community. It's not really all that vague.

The construct is simple. Life is the first principle. Reciprocity probably the second, which is to say, I expect to be treated as I treat others. I acknowledge others have the same rights I do. The third is justice. And so on down the line. All ethical, moral, and legal systems are constructs. I simply like the one that assumes we're all human and all equal without reference to a deity who says as much, since deities rarely, if ever, say as much. Can this be argued as a universal principle of morality? Nope. Does it work, pragmatically speaking? Of course. Are there flaws? Indeed, but I'm not a systemist; I'm a skeptic, so I tend to look for flaws with whatever ad hoc answers currently being offered, recognizing that all systems are ad hoc.

Sabio Lantz
"Turns out you are pretty much who and what you are no matter what you believe about sky gods."

Well said ! This is something very difficult for religious folks to understand. Maybe your post will help a few.

"[My sense of self] is diminished when people think me selfish or greedy or craven."

Actually, as long as I am not selfish ... I don't care too much what folks think.

As far as "My sense of self improve ...": I get what you are saying, but if I may put a bit of a Buddhist spin on it:

When loving, giving, forgiving and living redemptively ... I feel a sense of self lighten up.

Thanx for the post.

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